It’s difficult to throw a stone in rural Ireland without hitting a sacred ruin — in fact, before you chuck that rock, look closely, as it might just be a piece of an old abbey or a pre-Christian stone circle. Those looking to visit such a site have no shortage of options; the country has dozens of different offerings from crumbling stones in the middle of cow pastures to large, state-run attractions with big parking lots and armies of knock-off Disney ice cream trucks chasing the tour buses looking for a big score.
One such well-preserved, well-presented, and well-visited site is that in Clonmacnoise, overlooking the River Shannon at the crossroads of ancient Ireland.
The site was first established in the 6th century by one Saint Ciarán as a place of worship and learning (Dark Ages Irish monks like Ciarán were among the only people in Europe keeping the art of literacy alive during a time of barbarism and ignorance), where it flourished for centuries, becoming an important stop for traders and tourists as well as students and the faithful. Little survives of the wooden huts of the original site built by Ciarán and his ancient pals, but the stone churches, crosses, and Celtic round towers built later still survive and stand guard over the Shannon today.
The visit begins
Clonmacnoise, despite its way-out-there location, gets more than its share of visitors — many of them from packed tour buses traveling from Dublin to Galway, as it’s a perfect half-way stopover. Hop into the welcome center quickly to get your tickets before the next bus rolls in, and double check the time of the next video presentation.
If you like animated dramatizations of historical events, this is the museum-exposition film for you! The 20-minute presentation outlines the known history of the site, with some best-guess models of what the site may have looked like in its heyday. Try to keep these mental images fresh in mind before stepping outside, as these ruins — like all ruins — require some imagination to fill in the cracks (and rebuild the collapsed roofs) to see their significance.
After the film (or maybe while waiting for the film), head outside to the site itself. You’ll note the most significant structures immediately: two round towers, the large cathedral, and two smaller ruins, all surrounded by gravestones old and new.
The can’t-miss-’em Celtic crosses will probably be your first stop as you walk through the site. These massive, intricately carved high crosses are some of the largest and best-preserved in the land (well, not these crosses, the authentic pieces are in the indoor collection, the crosses you see here exposed to the elements are replicas).
Get lost in the details of the larger “indoor” structures of the site. Try not to see them as empty, deteriorating hulks, but as the pieces of medieval art and engineering they are. Look through window holes to see what kind of view worshippers would have seen a millennium ago; try to visualize the faces of the human statues set into the walls; measure the angles of the Gothic arches.
Look out over the two towers to the wide River Shannon (and its even wider floodplain), once the superhighway of the country, and consider why the boys back in the 500s A.D. decided to set up shop here. The river not only connects the Irish midlands to the sea, but it also serves as the boundary line between the two old kingdoms of Leinster and Connacht — still does, if you’re a rugby fan.
If you have some extra time — you might not if you’re traveling with a tour group with dinner-and-dancing show reservations in Galway that night — read the names and dates on the gravestones; you might be surprised at how recent some of them are. Though Clonmacnoise has lost most of its religious, political, and economic influence, its sacred draw and deep connection to the past is undeniable. Families with relatives buried here continue to lay their own to rest at Clonmacnoise, in the shadow of Saint Ciarán’s masterpiece and overlooking some of the greenest land this already overly verdant island has to offer. No matter where your own roots are, you just may feel the desire to inquire about a grave plot yourself (they’ve expanded the cemetery to accommodate demand).
Nuts and bolts
- Clonmacnoise is located south of the city of Athlone in County Offaly; the visitor center and site are open all year, hours vary seasonally; admission is €7.00 adult; car and bus parking available.
- The experience at Clonmacnoise is similar to that at the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary; it is not recommended for the casual Ireland visitor to visit both of these similar sites unless there is a specific interest in Christian or religious history or archaeology. If you have the option to visit either site, go for Cashel, a slightly better-preserved site with more to see and do in the surrounding area. Clonmacnoise is an easy stop from Dublin to Galway; Cashel is an easier stop from Dublin to Cork or Kerry.
- To give your mind’s eye a little boost in picturing St.Ciarán’s original vision, consider grabbing the new Clonmacnoise augmented reality mobile app. This app uses your location to project a simulated image of your location on the site before it fell to ruin. Simply point your phone at a building, a wall, or down a path to see it restored to its former glory in 3D.